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The Sun’s Fury Evokes Earth’s Awe as Solar Storms Intensify the Aurora Borealis
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Raging storms and flares from the sun translated into a dazzling and hauntingly beautiful light show on Earth this Tuesday, as the magnetic solar winds intensified the aurora borealis and made the Northern Lights more striking, beautiful, and widely visible than they have been in over a decade.

“It has been absolutely incredible,” said British astronomer John Mason who witnessed the display from a cruise ship on the northern coast of Norway. “I saw my first aurora 40 years ago, and this is one of the best.” The passengers of the ship cheered in awe.

“It was the biggest northern lights I’ve seen since I’ve worked here,” said Andreas Hermansonn, a tour guide at the Ice Hotel in the Swedish town of Jukkasjarvi.

  
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“We stopped the bus. And suddenly it was this gigantic display of dancing lights and Technicolor,” said Michelle Cahill, an Irish psychologist taking a tour. “It was an absolutely awesome display. It went on for over an hour. Literally one would have to lie on the ground to capture it all.”

“The lights appear as green and red mist. Its been mostly green the past few nights. I don’t know if that’s just special for Ireland,” said Gerard O’Kane, vice chairman of the Buncrana Camera Club in Donegal County in Ireland’s northwest corner.

The aurora is the visible consequence of magnetic solar winds rushing into the Earth’s magnetic field. The sun’s surface storms sometimes create a coronal mass ejection, a chunk of the sun’s atmosphere, sending a solar wind of protons travelling at 5 million miles per hour.

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Chuck Deeher, the aurora forecaster, explains: “If you think of the sun as a basketball in the middle of a football field, the Earth is the size of a pea in the end zone. So whatever happens on the sun blasts into space and ejecta follows a shock which goes through interplanetary space. The shock reaches us first and bangs into the Earth’s magnetic field.”

The charged electrons and protons link up with the Earth’s magnetic field, generating electricity that travels down magnetic field lines. The electrons and protons strike nitrogen and oxygen in our atmosphere, causing them to glow, making such light shows as we’ve seen yesterday.



The show erupted around 10:15 p.m., making the scientist’s forecast only 13 minutes off, a far more accurate prediction than ever before. As this electrical activity can effect satellites and radio waves, making such accurate predictions will be more and more important in the future.

Scientists predict the sun will become even more active in the following months and years. “To me it was a wake up call,” said Doug Biesecker, physicist at the U.S. Space Weather prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. “The sun is reminding us that solar max is approaching. A lot worse is in store for us. We hope that you guys are paying attention. I would say we passed with flying colors.”

The sun seems to be entering the active phase of its 11 year cycle, and is predicted to peak in 2013. What sorts of negative consequences could this have for us?

Tuesday, Delta Air lines diverted a few flights across the polar north, between Detroit and Asia, because the magnetic storms disrupt certain high level radio frequencies used by airlines. Said Delta spokesman Anthony Black, “It can impact your ability to communicate. So basically the polar routes are being flown further south than normal.”

The activity can also affect satellites, though they are built to recover from such solar weather.

Kenn Kennedy, director at the British Astronomical Association, predicts that the northern lights may be visible for a few more days, perhaps as far south as Chicago.



 

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